Benjamin Cheah/Photos by Shawn Danker
Two prominent members of the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) have come out to voice support for Presidential candidate Dr Tan Cheng Bock. They are Mr Benjamin Pwee, Second Assistant Secretary General, and Mr Jimmy Lee, member of the Central Executive Council.
Speaking to TOC in an exclusive interview, both men stressed that they were supporting Dr Tan in their personal capacities. (The SPP does not officially endorse any presidential candidate) Messrs Pwee and Lee are currently volunteering in Dr Tan’s campaign.
“The key role for the President is (to be) a check and balance (against) the government,” Mr Lee said. Using this as a guiding principle, Mr Lee gave several reasons why he supported Dr Tan.
Firstly, Mr Lee said that Dr Tan was the first to declare his candidacy, allowing Mr Lee to research Dr Tan, and believed that this ‘signalled his commitment to transparency and accountability’. Secondly, Mr Lee was impressed with Dr Tan’s experience in the private sector and his financial knowledge, as well as Dr Tan’s ‘ability to work independently’ of the organisations he oversaw. Finally, Mr Lee felt that Dr Tan’s background as a general practitioner gave Dr Tan insight into Singapore’s grassroots.
Mr Pwee’s reasons were somewhat different. Mr Pwee counts Dr Tan’s daughter amongst his circle of friends, calling Dr Tan ‘Uncle Bock’, and this sense of emotional intimacy first drew Mr Pwee’s attention to Dr Tan. Mr Pwee added that he had been approached by Mr Tan Jee Say to help in his campaign. Mr Pwee said it was ‘a difficult decision’ to choose between Mr Tan and Dr Tan, but eventually chose the latter.
Mr Pwee explained, “I think the President needs to…unify the country across party factions and divides.” Mr Pwee felt that Mr Tan had aligned himself with the opposition in his campaign. Conversely, Mr Pwee believed that while Dr Tan had the respect of the government even though Dr Tan had publicly criticised the PAP’s policies.
“That, for me, puts (Dr Tan) in a unique position to garner support from across party colours,” he said.
While both men said they were acting privately, Mr Pwee hopes that his status as a member of the opposition, as well as an opposition candidate in the last General Elections, would send a message to Singaporeans.
Mr Lee agreed. He believed that both he and Mr Pwee were ‘acting in the best interest of Singapore, and not any political party.’
The Spectre of 1987
One of the shadows hanging over Dr Tan’s campaign was his support for the use of the Internal Security Act (ISA). In 1987, the government arrested 22 Catholic social workers under the ISA, accusing them of being Marxist bent on revolution. The Straits Times reported that Dr Tan, as head of the Feedback Unit, told Parliament that most Singaporeans believed that the arrests were justified. Dr Tan drew flak from online commentators for his statements, even though he stated in his interview with TOC that he felt the detainees were innocent.
On this issue, Mr Pwee felt that there a lot of what Dr Tan said behind closed doors went unreported, such as ‘private protestations’ and ‘private criticisms’. “What is visibly seen is not all that has happened,” he said.
Mr Lee said, “I believe that if the nation reaches a point where we can explore the past issues and have a movement towards reconciliation…Dr Tan Cheng Bock will do the right thing.”
Criticism of Dr Tony Tan
Both men were vocal of their criticism of Dr Tony Tan during the interview.
“The Constitution says the President is to be a check on the Government and to approve key government decisions”, he said.
Mr Pwee expressed doubts about Dr Tan’s independence. Mr Pwee felt that there might be a conflict of interest if Dr Tan were elected. Among the President’s duties is to scrutinise the budgets of specified statuary boards, amongst which is the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC). Dr Tan held the posts of Executive Director and Deputy Chairman of the GIC until 1st July this year.
“I think we want more transparency around (government investments), and that can only be brought about by a more objective and non-partisan President,” he said.
Mr Pwee added that he felt Dr Tan should have brought up issues for discussion, such as the 1987 arrests.
Understanding the role of the President
“In my opinion, only Dr Tan Cheng Bock understands the constitutional requirements and roles of the President best,” Mr Lee said.
Mr Pwee said that voters should understand the roles of the President as described by the Constitution, and guard against projecting their biases onto the office. Mr Pwee added that he would not vote for ‘whoever would be the biggest pain (for the government)’ as ‘that might not necessarily be the role the Presidency was meant to play.’
“The President (should be) somebody who is not just credible but is also somebody that the government respects,” Mr Pwee said. He added that Dr Tan can ‘stand up’ to ‘people of the (Prime Minister’s) calibre’ in the government.
In addition to their Constitutional roles, Mr Pwee felt that the President could play a leadership role in Singapore. Mr Pwee said the President could work together with the government, other political parties, and other groups to ‘take an active leadership role in helping to guide the development of Singapore’s socio-political climate.’ He added that should not just act when ‘his powers are necessary’.
Message to Singaporeans
Saying that Singaporeans were not just voting for a ceremonial head of state, Mr Pwee advised Singaporeans to ask themselves who would be the ‘right person with the…courage to speak up regardless of party political affiliation and background’.
“We are not looking for (a President) that is an extension of the government,” Mr Pwee said. “It is important for the President to be seen as completely separate from the role of the government.”
Mr Pwee said that there have been many comparisons amongst and between the candidates and former President S R Nathan. Mr Pwee said that the candidates should be compared against former President Mr Ong Teng Cheong, ‘not in his ceremonial role, but in the ways he stood up to and fought for and exercised his powers’.
Mr Lee agreed that the President is not merely a ceremonial role, adding that ‘we need a President who is independent and strong enough to hold on to whatever custodial powers’ he has.
Mr Pwee encouraged voters to learn more about the candidates, to have ‘an open mind’ and ‘take the opportunity to be educated’ about them. Regardless of who wins, Mr Pwee said, he hopes that it would be ‘a step forward’ in ‘the growth of Singapore’s political awareness.’
Read Benjamin Pwee and Jimm Lee’s press statement here.